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How can we analyze the poem "On Turning Ten" by Billy Collins? What are the attitude, theme, and shifts of the poem?

The attitude of Billy Collins' poem "On Turning Ten" is solemn and sad. The poem is about fear of growing up and losing the creativity and invincibility of being young. It shifts between memories of childhood and fear of being older.

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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This poem turns on its head the idea that a tenth birthday is a joyous occasion. Instead, the young speaker laments the loss he is feeling as he grows older. The poem shows the pain of maturing from innocence to experience.

Turning ten makes the speaker feel sick: he imagines his maturation as a typical childhood illness of his period, such as the measles, the mumps, or the chicken pox, using these diseases as metaphors for getting older.

The speaker primarily regrets his loss of imagination. He writes of the end of magical thinking:

At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

Now, however, at ten, he lives in a more prosaic reality: "the late afternoon light" falls solemnly against his bicycle, "all the dark blue speed drained out of it."

The speaker employs apostrophe, addressing an absent "you," an adult telling the child he is too young to be looking back nostalgically at his past. The boy, however, attributes this to the adult having forgotten what it is like to be a young child.

Growing up brings with it an awareness of the reality of pain. The speaker knows now he is not filled with "light" but that if he falls, he will "bleed."

The speaker's childlike voice opposes and yet highlights the poem's melancholy theme. The poem is in the tradition of Romantic verses that acknowledge the special spirit and innocence of the young child, such as Wordsworth's "My Heart Leaps Up," which states "the child is the father of the man."

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Cailey Thiessen eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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"On Turning Ten" by Billy Collins reveals the thoughts of a young boy about to turn ten. The poem has a few shifts from happy memories of younger years to a foreshadowing of the sadness of being ten.

Let's first look at the positive moments in the poem. Collins writes:

At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

The speaker is looking back at past years, remembering games he played and things he imagined. At the time they were very real, though now he is looking at them as play pretend.

I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.

This stanza talks about the invincibility of childhood. Back then, there were no fears, but now the speaker is getting older and has fallen enough times that he knows he is not actually invincible. Now he is afraid to ride his bike as fast as possible, because he knows what happens if he falls.

In order to analyze this poem, we also need to look at the overall attitude of the poem. Despite these callbacks to positive moments, the attitude of the poem is sad.

We see this in lines like "the late afternoon light ... never fell so solemnly." The very first stanza explains the feeling of the poem with the lines:

a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

In these lines, the speaker is taking physical illnesses and applying them to the emotional fear and dread he now feels. He may have had chicken pox when he was younger. Now he is trying to imagine what could be worse, since the emotions and the uncertainty of growing up seem more intense even than chicken pox.

Up till now, these illnesses may have been the worst thing the speaker had heard of, so he uses them to describe this new fear.

It sets up the tone of the poem, which is fearful and sad and longing for the simpler time.

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Wallace Field eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The speaker's attitude toward growing up is quite negative: it produces a mood of foreboding and menace. He dreads it; the idea of aging makes him feel sick, like he's "coming down with something," something significant and life-changing. He has some disdain toward the people who tell him he shouldn't be "looking back," because he knows that he can remember what they have forgotten. He remembers the "perfect simplicity of being one," for example, and the depths of his imagination and creative faculties: things adults can no longer access or recall.

There is a shift after the second stanza, when the speaker describes what he feels like now compared to what he felt then, before the age of ten (his "first big number"): the way the light looked, the way his bike leaned. In the next stanza, he describes his new feeling of sadness. This shift helps to lead to the theme of the poem, that growing up is hard: the loss of our innocence is inevitable and dreadful.

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Dorothea Tolbert eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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"On Turning Ten" by Billy Collins has a tone/attitude of melancholy and thoughtfulness.  The narrator is reflecting thoughtfully on his sadness about turning ten, "the first big number."  The narrator also reminisces about the happiness and playfulness of his earlier ages.  He describes all the characters he pretended to be, such as an "Arabian wizard...a soldier... [and] a prince."  He contrasts this prior joy when he decides that this new age is "the beginning of sadness."  This statement shows his melancholy attitude.

The theme of the poem is growing up and the struggles having to do with coming of age.  The narrator starts by listing all the illnesses he would rather have than turn ten.  He describes this new age with dread.  He longs to be young again, even though he is told that "it is too early to be looking back."  

The shift in the poem is when the narrator accepts that he is growing up and that life is difficult.  He contrasts his former view about life with the view he has now.  He explains his new perspective:

"It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed."

The narrator's acceptance that life involves real pain is the point in the poem where he reaches true realization.  He no longer believes that his body is filled with light.  Instead, he acknowledges that when he gets injured, he will bleed.

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